Bucks County recently announced a new program where all police departments across the county will ask to collect a DNA sample from anyone arrested. The DNA sample will then be sent to a private laboratory where the individual’s DNA profile will remain on file with the private laboratory. The information will be retained and shared among the five-county Philadelphia metropolitan area, including Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware and Philadelphia Counties.
Prior to this program, police would have access to an individual’s DNA profile by obtaining a DNA sample via search warrant or through the DNA record system maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police, which is compatible FBI’s nationwide system, CODIS. CODIS retains information from DNA profiles in a central database collected by law enforcement nationwide. In Pennsylvania, any person convicted of a felony or specified misdemeanor is required by law to provide a DNA sample to authorities following their conviction and that DNA sample is decoded and stored in a central system. When police obtain DNA through a search warrant, the sample is used to compare a person’s DNA profile to an unknown sample related to a crime.
Some individual police departments previously implemented similar post-arrest DNA collection programs. Like the Bucks County program, absent a conviction of a qualifying offense or search warrant, these programs are voluntary. The person asked may decline to provide a sample. The Bucks County program, however, marks the first countywide, post-arrest DNA collection program from police departments in the nation.
Why does this program matter? For police and prosecutors, the program gives them a tool to solve unsolved crimes or strengthen a case at trial. The program is voluntary, but according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, in Bensalem Township, who ran a similar program prior to Bucks County implementing the countywide program, 95% of those arrested voluntarily consented to providing a DNA sample. In practical terms, most people want to appear cooperative with police, lest they look as though they are hiding something. Police and prosecutors seek to add tools to their toolbox in solving crimes and prosecuting those accused of committing them.
The danger in providing a DNA sample arises from sheer strength of the technology. During the O.J. Simpson trial twenty years ago, in order to obtain a workable DNA profile, scientists needed a fair amount of bodily fluid (i.e. blood, saliva, semen) or hair. Today, the technology is so powerful that a mere twenty skin cells, imperceptible to the naked eye, can generate a full DNA profile. The strength of the technology can actually lead to a false-positive. While Bucks County pointed to a case where a suspect was cleared through this program, if probable cause existed to obtain a search warrant and arrest, the results of a search warrant for the suspect’s DNA also would lead to his exoneration through DNA evidence.
When confronted with providing a voluntary DNA sample to the police, you should consult with an attorney. Absent a search warrant or court order, any request for a DNA sample is voluntary, and you may refuse to provide a DNA sample. If someone has already given a sample, he or she may contact the police department and request that they withdraw the information from the database. The concern with that, however, is that the FBI often will not follow the same protocol as local and state authorities; if the DNA profile is shared with them, it may be too late.
In the coming months, expect to see other counties start a similar program. Bucks County is already sharing the information gathered with other law enforcement agencies across the Philadelphia region and other counties will likely follow the Bucks County model. Local counties may also wait to see if a bill passes in Pennsylvania that would mandate DNA collection at the time of arrest for certain offenses.
By Matthew Quigg